Harrison crashed the four-wheeler because the brakes didn’t work. A 1999 Honda, hunter green. He wrecked it off the Spring Lake levee. We should have called an ambulance, but how would an ambulance have gotten there? Betsey Harmon, the only girl who ever hung out with us, pounding his chest and crying. We didn’t have cellphones, not yet. We were fourteen.
In the hospital room, all the old ladies from church came. They laid their hands on him, they anointed him with oil—olive oil they got at the Kroger—they prayed over him in tongues, a language I couldn’t understand. Not the tongues of men, but angels, they said. God heard it and understood, even if we didn’t. God knew what was happening. God had a plan.
I hurled my prayers up like pebbles plinking at God’s window. Maybe God would stick His head out and ask what was the matter? But I doubted it. My prayers were tossed skyward with just a smidgen of belief. The old ladies’ prayers were chucked like bricks. If anything had a chance of working, it was the indecipherable words of the holy old ladies. The doctors sure as shit didn’t know what they were doing.
And yet Harrison survived. More than that, after three days in the hospital, he woke up. We threw a party for him. The whole town turned out. The church ladies in their finest, the men in their suits, all us teenagers sulking in our khakis and Sunday dresses. It was Harrison’s Come Back to Life party. The church ladies called it Resurrection.
I didn’t know what to say in my button-up and party hat. I kept seeing him with his cracked skull, his body splashing into the river, his face blue when they pulled him out of the drink. Fourteen minutes he couldn’t breathe, they told us. He was brain-dead. No way he was he coming back. He’d gone home to be with the Lord, to the land without sorrow or tears or pain.
But there he was, Harrison Saunders, his soft, blonde curls buzzed and head bandaged, his chlorinated blue eyes, arm in a sling. In the back of the party, quiet as the moon. Yes, Harrison was back. But he had changed.
He quit the football team first. The coaches understood, even though he’d been a star wide receiver, skinny but tall, with hands that could snatch anything out of the darkness. “Who could blame him?” said Coach Gaines, who also taught biology. “If I took a taste of death I wouldn’t hurl myself out in front of Wesley Chapman either.” Wesley Chapman was six-foot-three in seventh grade, two-twenty. He’d put three kids in the hospital by the time he graduated. Wesley now sells farm equipment on I-55, and you can see him on local TV commercials astride a John Deere. Wesley wouldn’t have hit him anyway. Harrison was different now. It was in the way he seemed to look past you when you talked, how he’d glide through the halls of our school oblivious and unconcerned. He was touched.
Before the wreck, Harrison was the guy who ramped his bike off Will Ketchum’s roof into the above-ground pool, nearly broke his neck. The first of us to get to second base with a girl in the woods behind the band hall, he told us all about it. Harrison was braver than the rest of us. Now he kept to himself, even in class. He said reading hurt his eyes, and it was months before numbers didn’t give him a migraine. We took turns doing his homework, all our old pals, everyone who was there that day, riding four-wheelers through the woods, spotlighting deer, not giving much a shit about anything. We had to care now because our friend had been hurt. Death had wandered its way into our camp, taken a taste, and decided to leave us alone. Our soldier had fallen, and now that he was back, we wouldn’t let him go.
The youth group asked him to speak. Did he see a shining bright light? Had Christ sent him back home with a message? He told our youth pastor, a bullfrog of a man permanently clad in Hawaiian shirts, that he couldn’t say for sure. “I don’t really remember much.”
But we never believed him when he said he hadn’t felt the flutter from the wings of some angelic host. We knew he’d seen something on other side and brought it back with him. That’s why he didn’t tell jokes anymore. That’s why he hung out by himself at lunch.
“Why won’t you talk to me?” I asked him once, after a Halloween party. “Just tell me what’s wrong.” I’d dressed as Michael Myers. Harrison went as a ghost, white sheet and all. It was an embarrassing costume, chucked together last minute from his mom’s old bedsheets. He hadn’t wanted to dress up at all.
“My brain’s just fine,” he said, his eyes calm and pure blue as the deep end at the country club pool. “I told you, I don’t remember a thing. The four-wheeler flipped. And I woke up to my dad crying in the hospital three days later.”
Mr. Saunders did cry, a lot. Harrison’s accident changed his dad’s whole life too. He had been the loudest guy at the party, the one other people had to drive home at church events, his wife long gone from the women’s prayer breakfast on Thursdays, embarrassed. Now he was a deacon. Now he led small groups at vacation bible school.
“What happened to my boy saved my marriage,” said Mr. Saunders. “Not that it was my wife’s fault. It was all mine. I didn’t know what it meant to love somebody, not really. Not till I almost lost my boy.”
Mr. Saunders said all this at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting, the one we always had at the end of the year. It was a fundraiser for new uniforms for the football team. Not that I played. Too skinny for football, too short for basketball, no interest in baseball. My dad was horrified. He’d played college ball at a junior college, but I had no interest. My cousin let me hear the second Deftones album when he was driving me home from school and it had pretty much been all over after that.
I let Harrison copy my math homework for a year. Harrison with his head in his hands, crying, saying the numbers were wrong. He said it was like trying to read a road sign in a dream. But once his head cleared up, he excelled. Not English, because he couldn’t stomach fiction, or history, which used to be his love. It was all math and science, physics and calculus, AP calculus in eleventh grade, the first kid at our school who ever got that far. He aced his state tests, he was a member of the quiz bowl team. And he shaved his head, that long pink scar like God’s lipstick across the back of his skull.
“Hair is annoying,” he said, wearing the Walmart khakis his mom bought him, polo shirts from the Goodwill. “It just doesn’t mean anything to me.”
In a time when I was wearing Slipknot shirts, Jncos, a chain wallet, Harrison wore whatever was offered to him. He picked up poetry around that time, Yeats and T.S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson, though he still wouldn’t touch a novel. “I read what I care about,” he said. “I don’t have time for anything else.”
Also, Harrison had begun to sing. Where before he couldn’t so much as carry a tune, now he had a beautiful singing voice, a countertenor, high and strange. He sang in the school choir but never at church, which broke his dad’s heart. “I just can’t do it,” he’d say, even though his dad would threaten him, take away TV, video games, eventually his car. “Those songs don’t work for me.”
Harrison’s mom seemed to understand. A daughter of the owners of the first gas station in our town, she was quiet, plain, but with eyes that could scorch the bark off a tree. She’d long suffered through her husband’s bullshit, and appreciated his straightening up, but trust comes slowly to someone who’s watched their partner piss himself at the Lewises’ annual cookout. She doted on Harrison, cutting up apples for his lunchtime snacks, always inviting us over, pitchers full of lemonade, turning a blind eye when I smoked on her back porch, empty beer cans piling up in the secret trash can we had behind his dad’s forgotten tool shed.
I say secret as a joke. Every time we filled the toolshed trash bag up—me and the other guys but never Harrison, who refused to drink—we would come back and find it empty, a fresh bag in its place. We joked that it was Harrison who did it, cleaning up after us, our faithful housewife. But we knew it was his mom, so grateful we still came around, so thankful we hadn’t abandoned her son. Because by that point, age seventeen, everybody else had. Harrison renounced the church, refusing even to sit in the pews. His dad begged the church to pray for him. To call his boy back from the abyss. I dove deeper into the music I’d found—Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, anything that would give our old youth pastor a heart attack—and dressed the part. I spent most weekends at the Saunders’s house, playing endless games of Goldeneye, Mario Kart, winning about half the time.
That was the thing. Harrison, for whatever reason, despite his newfound academic acumen, was still horrible at video games. It was the only time you ever saw him get animated. I’d slip him a banana peel on the finish line of the Rainbow Road and he’d lose his shit, cursing, slamming his fist into the coffee table. He’d walk outside, pick up a garbage can and hurl it down the street. I didn’t mind, and neither did his mom. Because it was Harrison showing emotion, no matter how negative. At least he gave a shit about saving Hyrule from Ganondorf.
He was still a stranger to us—to me, his best friend since the second grade—but that only made me love him more. I was attached to Harrison. I would have done anything for him. I begged, for God to go back in time and switch us, for me to have my head busted, for me to have half-drowned, for me to have died and been resurrected. I wanted my friend back, sure. But I also wished it were me that had been snatched away from life, carried off to somewhere else, and reborn as the distant math savant who could only be flustered by spawn kills on the Bunker level.
Because things had not been easy. My parents split up, and my dad headed off to Memphis with his new girlfriend. Mom pulling night shifts in the emergency room, her wine glass full of cigarette butts I’d clean up every morning. I loved my mom, but same as Harrison, she seemed to be drawn to something deeper. Her eyes wide and bloodshot, staring off into nothing. That one Chris Isaak song repeating on the stereo, the food gone cold. How desperate and long her goodnight hugs became, asking me a question about regular grown-up loneliness when I hadn’t figured out my first kiss.
I hung out with Harrison every weekend, him sitting passenger in my car as I played whatever mixtape of nu-metal and eighties thrash I’d cobbled together the night before because he would never drive. He listened to me when I complained about acne or Betsey Harmon. The way he would frown, squinch his eyes shut, the soft touch of his hand on my shoulder. Sometimes he told me things too. How he no longer remembered anything before the age of eight. How he’d pull out his old G.I. Joes and have to ask who Snake Eyes was. How he didn’t know Batman was Bruce Wayne. How he no longer knew the words to any pop songs, no matter how many times they played on the car stereo or blasted over the PA at the country club pool. He asked about what we did growing up. My best and happiest memories, retold for him as well as I could. He was new. It broke my fucking heart.
Which was why I didn’t mind when Harrison and Betsey started dating. I’d loved Betsey since fourth grade when she beat the shit out of Riley Stanford for giving her a dirty valentine at school. Most of the girls in our class were after Harrison, even if he was standoffish. The only square in our crew of misfits. I wished I had some of that. I wished I had any of it.
I remember when Harrison’s straight-edge kick broke. It was our sophomore year of college. Harrison could have gone anywhere, but he picked state school with me. He was my roommate. We watched movies and ate pizza and spent all night in internet chat rooms with strangers. We’d pop on a record——I was into Sleep now, Electric Wizard, Crowbar—smoke a joint with the window open and a fan blowing, and float suspended in digital life. There was a world out there. I talked to a trucker in a bathrobe from his motel for four hours. Harrison smiling, passing a Jim Beam bottle between us. Passing out and seeing that computer screen beacon before I drifted into sleep, the clack of Harrison’s fingers on the keyboard. Waking up to the bottle empty.
Sometimes Betsey would sleep over. She went to the same school. It was free, mostly. Where else were we going to go? She was the first person in her family to make it to college anyway. We had bunk beds in our dorm and I would listen to her snoring just a few feet above me, in Harrison’s arms, the Batman blanket I’d bought it for him from Target dangling down the bedside. Those were good times.
I partied more, and Harrison did too. He’d do every drug I gave him. We’d crush up pills and snort them and see what happened. Driving cars down Westbrook Road as fast we could. That turn off College Hill that dipped and made your stomach plummet like the Ring of Fire at the state fair. The night Hurricane Katrina demolished the coast, we saw footage of entire roads ripped from the soil, fragments of pavement piled on top of each other like tectonic plates. But by the time it reached us in north Mississippi it was just a bad storm. Flung tree limbs, cracked oaks down their spines. A few houses lost roofs, whoever was dumb enough to have a basement flooded.
Harrison was ecstatic. He told us to hop into his weird gray Toyota pickup, almost a toy car, that we were going driving. The rain pounding down, the wind blowing so hard he held the steering wheel in both hands.
“Watch this,” he said, and yanked the wheel, sending us spiraling down an empty street. The dizziness of it, Betsey laughing and laughing. I was alone in the backseat on our third trip down the hill when it started hailing, when lightning cut a pink scar through the sky. Harrison yanked the wheel. We spun, same as before, but this time we popped a curb, swerving into someone’s front yard, smashing into a pine tree, the hood crumpling, the window shattered. I barely remember the impact. Only the sound, like the world ripping in half.
Harrison was fine, barely a scratch from the glass. Betsey’s nose got broken by the airbag. I remember her bleeding, crying. I was the only one not wearing a seatbelt. My shoulder was dislocated. Not even broken. The doctor popped it back in, with a crack that made me vomit. It only bothers me now on the first cold day of every year. Just an ache.
The cops came. Harrison went to jail for DUI, possession. The church ladies wrote him off, their miracle baby gone heathen. Half of me wondered if that wasn’t Harrison’s plan all along. Maybe it was a mistake to bring me back, ever think about that? Betsey’s parents banned him from their house. They kept dating in secret.
By the time we graduated—and Harrison did graduate, barely—he was off on another planet. The drugs got harder, the dreadlocks whiter. I started working as a teller in a bank, and I couldn’t do it stoned. I don’t know what Harrison did. We still lived in the same town, but we seldom spoke. I would check on him, text him from time to time. We’d go to Chevron and eat massive piles of macaroni and cheese and fried catfish. He never bathed, and he was too skinny. Like a chunk of him was missing. He and Betsey kept breaking up, her coming to me crying. Coming to me often. Sleeping over sometimes.
Betsy curled up in my bed, in my new apartment I rented, a refuge from whatever garbage-infested shithole Harrison slept in. I loved Betsey and she knew it. They always do. Did I feel bad about fucking my best friend’s girlfriend? Of course I did. But she knew what she was doing.
One time we had sex on my couch after a beautiful night. I attempted fettuccini alfredo with shrimp. I was trying to be fancy, and landed somewhere south of Olive Garden. Betsey was sweet about it. She looked great, wore a short black dress. We drank wine, and she couldn’t stop giggling. It felt like the way I always wanted. Like I was the true beloved. We were so passionate, we couldn’t be bothered to undress, which was when Harrison busted in. The look on his face.
Betsey hopped right off me, but when I tried to apologize, what came out was the truth. “It’s my fault,” I said. He looked down at me, confused. “I knew the four-wheeler had bad brakes. I didn’t tell you.”
Harrison didn’t say a word to me then. He just grabbed Betsey and left. I didn’t go to work the next day, or the whole week. I couldn’t shake the memory of Betsey standing in the corner, her dress mostly back on. The frenzy in the eyes of my friend who had been nigh comatose for years now, the drugged stupor just starting to crack. The way he left the door open on the way out, how it started to rain, soaking the carpet. The porch light casting a shadow long and skinny into my doorway. She’d tipped him off. That’s my theory, anyway. How else to explain Harrison showing up like that? Her leaving the door unlocked. Had she been texting him while I made my mediocre attempts in the kitchen? I had been set up, Betsey trying to shock Harrison into another resurrection. I guess it did the trick.
Harrison cleaned up, went to rehab, stayed sober. Retook a million classes and wound up in med school. He and Betsey got married, and I wasn’t invited to the wedding. They moved to Nashville. Those were lonely times. I got a job at a different bank and climbed the ranks okay. Banks get bought and sold all the time, and nobody knows why. Life was life, and it went along at a diminished pace. That’s what happens to people like me, who the church ladies had never laid their hands on. You only live once.
I bumped into Harrison and Betsey at the grocery store when we were both visiting our parents in Jackson. I saw them in the beer aisle, which surprised me, Harrison grabbing a twelve-pack of Miller Lite. I tried to hide, but he called my name. “I have missed you,” he said, hugging me. “The lost part of me.” I was crying. I got to be honest about that. An adult man of forty in the beer aisle of the Kroger. But Harrison held me, and he would not let go, Betsey looking on quiet beside him, a smile on her face.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s done,” was all he said.